'Dark City' - the Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Dark City' - the Film

0 Conversations

Dark City DVD
From the dark side of the imagination, a world where the night never ends, where man has no past and humanity has no future.
- Trailer

Dark City (1998) is a glorious, thought-provoking science fiction film noir. It explores themes of identity and individuality, fate and free will, asking whether we are more than the sum of our memories.

From the start, Dark City is full of very evocative images. It opens when Murdoch, a man with no memory, wakes up with a bleeding head.


First there was darkness, then came the Strangers.

John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel room, next to a dead woman, with no memory whatsoever. On the run from the police, who believe he is a serial killer, he tries to learn about his life and persuade his wife of his innocence. Instead he discovers that no-one remembers a way out of the city, when they last saw daylight or how to get to the popular tourist destination Shell Beach. Only Doctor Schreber, a mysterious voice on the other end of a telephone, and a suicidal madman seem to know any answers.

For the city trapped in eternal night is secretly ruled by aliens simply known as 'The Strangers'. Though they appear to be human beneath their long, dark clothes and pale skin, they are actually insectile creatures inhabiting dead bodies. The Strangers have the ability to reset and change the fabric of physical reality, which they call 'Tuning', changing the buildings of the city in order to conduct a series of experiments on mankind. They constantly change people's surroundings and memories in order to see whether someone who has, say, been given the memories of a murderer will become a murderer, or whether a person's behaviour is more than the sum of their memories.


It's like I've just been dreaming this life, and when I finally wake up, I'll be somebody else. Somebody totally different!
John MurdochRufus Sewell
Emma MurdochJennifer Connelly
Dr Daniel P SchreberKiefer Sutherland
Inspector Frank BumsteadWilliam Hurt
Mr HandRichard O'Brien
Mr BookIan Richardson
Mr WallBruce Spence
Mr SleepNoah & Satya Gumbert
Inspector Eddie WalenskiColin Friels
Karl HarrisJohn Bluthal
MayMelissa George

John Murdoch

I feel like I'm living out someone else's nightmare.

Olivier Award-winning actor Rufus Sewell is perhaps best known for numerous costume dramas. He was cast because of his ability to convey emotion with just his eyes and face, a benefit for a role that involved numerous scenes without speech, and the director did not want a star name to detract from the anonymity of the main role.

Emma Murdoch

I so vividly remember meeting you. I remember falling in love with you. I remember losing you. I love you John, you can't fake something like that.

Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly is well-known for such films as Labyrinth, The Rocketeer and A Beautiful Mind. She wasn't New Line Studio's first choice of actress as they wanted a more famous star in the lead, however the director felt her appearance epitomised the 1940s femme fatale, and she convincingly conveyed inner sadness.

Dr Daniel P Schreber

Can you imagine what it's like to erase your own past?

Kiefer Sutherland is perhaps best known for his Emmy-winning role in television series 24. Although Schreber had been written with a much older actor in mind, Sutherland brought an unexpected and fresh take on the character. Schreber was named after Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911) who wrote Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, a book that strongly influenced Sigmund Freud.

Inspector Frank Bumstead

Do you think about the past much?

Oscar-winning actor William Hurt also appears. Perhaps most famous for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), he has also appeared in 2000's Dune miniseries and such films as AI Artificial Intelligence (2001), The Village (2004) and has played Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross in Marvel films The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Captain America: Civil War (2016).

Mr Hand

I have become the monster you were intended to be.

Richard O'Brien wrote The Rocky Horror Show and its film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and will forever be associated with television show The Crystal Maze.

Karl Harris

The old cracker barrel ain't what it used to be.

Karl is played by British comedy actor John Bluthal who not only appeared in films such as The Return of the Pink Panther, but is perhaps best-known for being Frank in The Vicar of Dibley.


You feelin' any urges I should know about?

Australian actress Melissa George was well known to British audiences having played Angel in Home and Away and would go on to have numerous television roles, including in Alias.

Creating Dark City

A touch of unhappy childhood, a dash of teenage rebellion, and last but not least, a tragic death in the family.

Dark City was made by Australian director Alex Proyas, then best known for directing The Crow (1994). Inspired by a recurring childhood nightmare involving the characters who would later become the Strangers, Proyas began writing the story in 1991. His initial draft focussed on a detective's point of view, in which the detective investigates a man with no memory and eventually goes mad, with the original ending being the trial for murder. This detective character was later split into two: Bumstead and Walenski. The Strangers were conceived as living underground, controlling the city above as if mankind were rats in a maze. This developed into the idea of a floating city in space.

After Proyas wrote the initial draft, writer Lem Dobbs was hired to develop it. Although Proyas knew what the story he had in mind was, he felt his strength was as a director and he needed a writer to give the film a cohesive structure. Despite the vision of the story, studios in Hollywood felt the script was unfilmable until Donald De Line at Touchstone Pictures became interested. While Dark City was in progress, Proyas made The Crow for Disney's Dimension Films, which he felt had similar theme. After a period at Touchstone the studio passed on the project, which was then picked up by 20th Century Fox and another scriptwriter, David S Goyer1, was hired with the mandate to make the script 'not as weird'. Proyas also wanted an American writer to add Americanisms to the script to make it much more period in feel. Fox, though, were only interested in making the film if they could cast Tom Cruise in the main role. Proyas had hoped for Ralph Fiennes, but as Strange Days (1995)2 had flopped, they refused to approve him3. Upset with how he was treated, Proyas took his project back.

Proyas managed to find interest at New Line Studios, who he felt would be less interfering. They offered a $27 million budget. Although Johnny Depp was proposed as a contender for the role of Murdoch, Proyas felt the audience would be distracted by Depp's fame rather than embark on the character's journey and so Proyas cast Rufus Sewell, who was relatively unknown outside Britain. The one rigid demand that the studio made up front was that filming had to be completed in 65 days. This proved impossible for a film of such complexity. When Dark City remained unfinished Proyas convinced the studio to allow an extra two week's filming, followed by a lengthy post-production period.

Dark City was filmed in Australia. There were 50 sets made to recreate the titular timeless city, which was designed to reflect a mix of times between the 1940s and the 1970s. The sets were erected in the Sydney Showground in Sydney, which has now become Fox Studios Australia, and they even made a canal inside the studio. The 'exterior' spaces were lit with sodium-vapour streetlights, which gave the distinctive almost-sepia colour palette. There was almost no location filming with the exception of the pier scene. Even this was filmed on a murky day, although in the film it looks bright and sunny as it has been digitally augmented. This gives the scene an artificial quality - making Shell Beach look as fake as the fabricated postcard fits in well with the idea of a world recreated from memories.

After the film was finished, the film underwent a Test Screening process. This, though, concluded that viewers didn't know what was happening at the start of the film. That was largely because the film, which used mystery conventions, had only just started. Even though the test screenings revealed that audiences knew what had happened by the end of the film, New Line Studios announced that the film had to be dumbed down, demanding a new opening sequence that explained the film's entire plot. Many have felt that this ruined the film - it was removed when a Director's Cut was released.

The Motion Picture Association of America also unexpectedly gave the film an R rating, rather than the expected PG-13. When asked why Dark City, a film with no gore, minimal violence, no swearing or sex and only very brief nudity was rated R, they were reportedly informed it was because the film was 'too weird'. Unsure what to do, New Line marketed Dark City as a horror film even though it wasn't, aliening the intended original audience. The release was also continually delayed by the success of Titanic at the box office - any attempt to release any other film during its height was unwise, which prevented the effectiveness of any advertising campaign in any case. Yet although the film flopped on first release, it has sold remarkably well on DVD. This led to the interest in creating a Director's Cut, which is ten minutes longer.


The film has a distinctive appearance. The city has been created by the Strangers, who designed it using stolen memories. This is why it is a mix of different eras, and has a unique look. The sets too are predominantly deep, narrow spaces, subconsciously looking like the maze that Schreber's rats run round. The characters in the film are living their narrow lives with tunnel vision in spaces that, like blinkers, stop them from looking around to see what is happening around them. As the film progresses and the main characters' perspective increases, the heroes' field of vision and views get bigger.

The use of horror movie techniques effectively generate an underlying mood of unease. The frantic way the film changes shots on average every two seconds gives the film a sense of urgency that is reinforced by not only Murdoch's being on the run, but also the way that Schreber is always out of breath. Whenever Schreber, the man with the answers, tries to explain to Murdoch what is going on, he is always interrupted, keeping the mystery and sense of urgency fresh.

The Strangers

The Strangers are a particularly effective adversary. Their look was inspired by Nosferatu (1922) and German Expressionism, complete with fetish leather fascist costumes, long trench coats and hats. The vampire influence can be seen in their pale skin, reanimating dead bodies and aversion to sunlight and water. Yet despite being parasitic, inhabiting dead bodies in order to survive, the Strangers are tragic characters, envying humanity and searching to learn individuality in order to gain a soul. The Strangers control everything and everyone in the city, playing with people like they are dolls in a dolls' house and changing people and surroundings at whim as part of their experiment, trying to understand what is outside their grasp. Their power to rearrange the city, which they call Tuning, is suitably advanced technology that resembles magic.

Mr Sleep is particularly disturbing. This character is a child Stranger who was played by twins Noah and Satya Gumbert due to the regulations restricting the amount of time that children are allowed to work. Mr Sleep was inspired by Don't Look Now (1973) and was deliberately only given one line, the spookily-delivered Kill him!

Although all are named 'Mr something', both women and men played Strangers. As the actors had all their hair and eyebrows shaved off, more male extras were willing to play the aliens than women were.

Search for Illumination

Surely this is the Saviour who is to come into the world?
John 6:14

Dark City isn't a film in which only the central character investigates what is going on. Everyone in Dark City is on their own journey while the audience shares Murdoch's voyage of discovery. The Strangers, Mr Hand in particular, try to learn what it is to be human. It is implied that every character Murdoch comes into contact with has only recently been imprinted with the personalities the Strangers desire them to have, and everyone except Murdoch is playing a character, all of which conform to basic archetypes. We see May, Emma and Bumstead treading water and going through the motions of everyday life. They act in the way they believe a prostitute, wife or detective should act, yet they are emotionless figures; their hearts are not engaged with what they are doing. Has May been brainwashed to welcome men fitting Murdoch's description with open arms and/or legs as part of her presumed prostitute programming to make it easier for the Strangers to see if a man instructed to violently murder call girls will actually become a murderer?

When Murdoch meets Emma, she believes that they have been married for four years, but he does not behave in the way she is programmed to expect him to. That moment is the start of her escaping the Strangers' robotic programming as she develops real feelings for possibly the first time. Like Walenski, Bumstead is a detective investigating the serial killer case. He soon realises that the intricate clues prove that it is reality that is wrong, not that Murdoch is a mass murderer. When Walenski learnt the truth he went mad and suicidal, which shows the audience a potential fate for both Murdoch and Bumstead. Yet Bumstead is a detective determined to find the truth, not the murderer, and like Murdoch he is determined to put the pieces together and solve the mystery, stripping away his world's false façade to discover the real façade underneath. Yet when both Emma and Bumstead choose to aid Murdoch, they are led by their hearts, leaving their automaton lives behind and at last regaining their humanity.

It is also possible to interpret John Murdoch's journey as having Biblical implications. The hotel room that John awakes in is number 614; John 6:14 mentions the coming of the saviour, which is the role he adopts in his fight against the Strangers who, through inhabiting the dead, can be seen as demons.


One of the film's recurring images is that of a spiral within a circle, in particular spirals and circles associated with clocks. Time controls the city; every midnight, everything and everyone in the city stops as time apparently freezes.

This is not a reassuring image; Emma sees Schreber experiment with rats in a spiral-shaped maze, and the audience sees the Strangers experimenting on the lives of the human inhabitants in the spiral-shaped city. The suspected serial killer is described by the police as 'running circles around us' while Emma sings of her 'run around lover' before singing that 'the night has a thousand eyes', presumably referring to how everything that happens in the city is watched by the Strangers. When Walenski goes mad, he draws circular imagery and says how he has gone round and round in circles all around the city. By controlling everyone's memories and making them go round in circles, the Strangers effectively ensure everyone is disorientated.

The illusion the Strangers have provided of life outside the city is the mythical resort Shell Beach, yet a shell too is shaped like a spiral. We learn that Emma's memories are fake as she is uncomfortable with her wedding ring and is unaccustomed to wearing it; even though she believes she has worn it for four years, she rotates it as if it does not belong on her finger. A circle is an endless loop, implying the Strangers are like a snake eating its own tail, making mankind go round in circles for their enjoyment, yet the city's streets spiral into the middle of the city and the heart of the mystery.


Since Dark City, characters that Jennifer Connelly plays have often found themselves standing on a pier and staring out to sea, in homage to this film's ending. Examples can be found in Requiem For A Dream (2000) and House of Sand and Fog (2003).

At the end of filming Dark City many of the sets were sold on to the next production that used the new Sydney film facility - The Matrix. Indeed, following Dark City, other films were released that also questioned whether the hero was in a real world. These included The Truman Show (1998), eXistenZ (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999) as well as The Matrix (1999).

When Christopher Nolan directed Inception (2010) he stated that Dark City was a key influence, particularly the ideas that reality might not be real and the possibility of stealing memories as well as the effect of the world shifting and changing around the heroes.

In a Director's Commentary Alex Proyas has stated that he had planned where the city was going and what Murdoch would do when it got there, so a sequel is a possibility.

1Writer and director David S Goyer would go on to write comic-book film adaptations such as the Blade trilogy, as well as co-write Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.2Strange Days has a similar theme as the main character also trades on people's memories within a science-fiction/film noir setting.3Fiennes went on to be Oscar-nominated for The English Patient (1996) instead.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more